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Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

An unflinching look at five physicians struggling to save lives amid an ongoing war.

Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders (NR)

M*A*S*H, this is not.  Nor is Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders a romanticized portrait of caregivers volunteering in war zones. Unlike many of today's documentaries designed to sway public opinion (Michael Moore's works would fall into the category), this movie is a straightforward, warts-and-all picture of five physicians working with the French nonprofit group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in post-conflict Liberia and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where four million people have been killed in an ongoing war.

First-time director Mark N. Hopkins (who produced Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry) won permission to embed with the doctors of MSF precisely because he did not have an agenda.  He wanted his movie to focus on the experiences of the doctors themselves—although we certainly see their patients in vivid and various states of injury—and to document the highs and lows of this kind of work.  His subjects include two first-time volunteers: Dr. Tom Krueger, who, disillusioned with the U.S. healthcare system, sold his practice in Tennessee to join MSF; and Dr. Davinder Gill from Australia, who has just finished medical school.  They are led by an Italian toxicologist, Dr. Chiara Lepora, who has become accustomed to deciding who can be saved and who can't. They let off steam by smoking and drinking with a gritty Australian anesthesiologist, Dr. Chris Brasher, who knows all too well that there's "none of that touchy-feely" [stuff] in this kind of work.

In fact, the frustrations of making do with inadequate equipment and a lack of medications lead another volunteer, Dr. Arnaud Jeannin, to give up on the organization, founded in 1971 and now operating in more than 60 countries.  "It's low-grade medicine," Jeannin admits.  "Helping to stop the suffering of people is tremendously rewarding. It also f—ks you up a bit."

Newbie Krueger sums up what the viewer is witnessing here.  "To realize in different situations, these are people you could save—and to watch them die,"he says, his words trailing off.  Entertainment this is not.  But Hopkins has managed to move his audience without manipulation, and that’s the mark of an exceptional documentary.